by Marissa Maier
Tucked in a quiet corner of the Wölffer Estate Stables in Sagaponack, the Center for Therapeutic Riding of the East End (CTREE) operates a little known program to benefit children with special needs. By teaching young students with a range of disabilities from ADD to autism, instructor and program director Karen Bocksel helps these tots develop physical, emotional, social, sensory and cognitive skills.
Above: CTREE volunteer Molly Vorhaus helps a young rider.
CTREE, the only program of its kind east of Riverhead, has slowly grown from one student to over 10 since it started almost two years ago. The CTREE board is kicking off a new wave of fundraising and awareness efforts about the organization on Monday, March 1, from 4 to 6 p.m. by hosting an open house at the stables.
CTREE is the brainchild of founder and local mother Amanda Ross. Horses are a lifelong passion for Ross, who started riding at the age of six. As a Sarah Lawrence College undergrad, Ross competed in the national finals with the school’s riding team. After taking a hiatus, Ross began riding again five years ago and learned of the therapeutic benefits of horseback riding for children with disabilities while living on the East End.
“I did some research and I learned there were a lot of special needs kids [in the area]. I knew there was a market for [CTREE],” noted Ross. “I started talking to people about [my idea] and Karen was sort of the missing link because she is so experienced.”
Ross and Bocksel, both transplants to the area, met by chance at a local meeting almost two years ago. In the world of therapeutic riding, Bocksel is somewhat of an expert. She has worked in the field for 20 years and currently is the president of the New York State Therapeutic Riding Organization. She also co-founded Therapeutic Riding at Centernary, a teaching program linked with Centernary College in New Jersey.
Bocksel brings her extensive therapeutic riding background to her lessons with the CTREE students. CTREE offers private lessons in the evening to accommodate working parents and children’s busy schedules. Though riding is often prohibitively expensive for most families, CTREE has kept their prices relatively low. A series of six lessons, over a six week session, costs around $240, which is roughly the same price as a cycle of ballet lessons or joining a sports team.
When students first sign up for CTREE, they are given a preliminary evaluation. They visit the barn and stables to become acclimated with the tactile input of the space. From the smell of hay and fresh manure to the sounds of clicking hooves, the barn can often be an overwhelming sensory experience at first. Then, the child gets up on the horse to see how they react. Throughout the evaluation and during lessons, Bocksel is aided by a volunteer like Southampton High School student Carla Gaynar who has also taken a psychology course.
Over time, Bocksel notes, the benefits of the program are numerous and help children in a variety of areas. According to Bocksel, the horses’ movement resembles a human’s gait and helps stimulate the muscles used for walking. Many nonverbal children are asked to make a sound or say a word to direct the horse. Riding bareback without a saddle or riding without reins creates abdominal strength in the children, which helps develop the muscles that are used for speaking.
“The children transfer what they have done in a lesson over to real life,” explained Bocksel. “In the case of a non-speaking child with autism, he makes a sound or word here [to move or command the horse] and when he goes home he says ‘I want juice’ or makes a motion.”
Bocksel added riding is a huge self-esteem booster for the children, who often don’t play regular sports. During a lesson, these children are controlling an animal whose average weight ranges from 900 to 1,100 pounds.
“Kids get tired with therapy [in a room]. They get tired of being told what to do,” explained CTREE board president Cynthia McKelvey of traditional special education services. “Here they are able to connect with another being.”
McKelvey is the mother of a seven-year-old Sag Harbor Elementary School student who was the first CTREE rider and she has reportedly blossomed under Bocksel’s guidance.
“CTREE helped her focus. She will talk and then stop [after being distracted]. With a horse, she has to stay focused. If she needs to bring the horse somewhere, she has to tell the horse what to do. It is a little bit of a cause and effect. If she loses focus, she loses control of the animal,” remarked McKelvey of her daughter who has Aspergers syndrome. “This has helped her stay on topic in conversation and focus on her homework.”
Understanding the benefits of the program, the CTREE board hopes to attract more riders through community outreach. This week, Bocksel spoke to a special education parents support group in East Hampton. In order to expand the program and hopefully create a scholarship fund, CTREE is increasing its fundraising efforts and solicitation of grants.
“We are going through a transition,” added Bocksel. McKelvey noted CTREE is in the midst of planning a series of events, starting with the open house, and has tentative plans to incorporate occupational, speech and physical therapy into the program. Bocksel noted a mother connected with the program is currently being trained as an occupational therapist and may soon join the program’s team.
Of CTREE’s new direction, Ross added, “As the program has been growing what we need to do now is raise more money and awareness.”
CTREE is located at Wölffer Estate Stables, 41 Narrow Lane East, Sagaponack. For more information or for details on the open house call Karen Bocksel at 375-3941 or email at email@example.com.